The U.S. men's national team settled for a 1-1 draw with Venezuela in a pre-World Cup qualifying friendly Saturday night, battling back from a first-half deficit thanks to Christian Pulisic's 61st-minute goal.
Aside from the 18-year-old's equalizer, there were few positives for the U.S. to take away, and there is an injury worry, with John Brooks appearing to hurt his right thigh at the start of the second half. Should he be unavailable for either of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, Saturday's draw would prove to be quite costly.
Playing at altitude in Sandy, Utah, to prepare for the qualifiers in Commerce City, Colorado, and Mexico City, the U.S. conceded first, when Jose Velazquez scored after a Venezuela corner. Tim Howard was called upon soon after to make a pair of fantastic saves to ensure La Vinotinto stayed off the scoreboard, and Pulisic came to the rescue to save face during an improved second-half performance.
Here are three thoughts on the game:
Pulisic continues to impress
Hardly a U.S. game goes by these days where we're not left marveling at Pulisic and something he does, and while he'll have better nights (and quiet ones too, you'd think) going forward, he provided the breakthrough the U.S. needed.
Operating in a central playmaking role as opposed to on the flanks, Pulisic continues to not just look comfortable, but thrive when called upon. It's not just the goals–there's the little things, too. A fifth-minute back-heel under pressure to keep possession and extend a sequence for the U.S. The move before the goal, shaking a defender and having the wherewithal to take the touch to create space before having the confidence to have a go.
The "sky's the limit" record continues to spin for the Borussia Dortmund rising star.
Set-piece snoozing, possession with no purpose
The USA's defending on set pieces and overall play over the opening half left plenty to be desired. Yes, the hosts bossed most of the ball, with Venezuela content to defend and counter, but the decision-making and urgency in the final third were lacking, and Venezuela really wasn't threatened despite conceding the ball. Don't believe it? Just ask Bruce Arena.
"Possession means nothing," Arena casually told FS1 at halftime. "We're not playing the ball quick enough, we're not playing it forward quick enough, they're getting 10 players behind the ball, doing a good job pressuring the ball and catching us on the break. we've got to do a better job with our spacing, play forward quicker and be more aggressive in getting at them."
On top of the possession-sans-purpose issue, there was the lack of focus on set pieces. Twice, in quick succession, the USA was burned by a novice Venezuela side on set plays, only conceding once thanks to Howard's heroics. Concede because of dynamic opposition? Fine. But simple set-piece marking shouldn't be on the to-do list of things to fix at this juncture.
Arena doesn't tinker with XI, but adds a wrinkle
Former U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann loved to experiment in friendlies, even ones that immediately preceded crucial matches. Whatever your feeling on his methods, there's an argument to be made for that approach, given that if you're going to try something to see how it works in a game situation, you might as well do it in a match with no direct consequence it if doesn't come off. That said, it also takes away from valuable minutes a core unit can have together, which is obviously a priority for Arena.
The U.S. boss has made no secret of who his top choices are, and he opted for a full-strength, first-choice unit to start against Venezuela. One could argue that Jozy Altidore, who has been in fine form, belongs in the top XI over Bobby Wood, and fair enough, but he was left out of the starters Saturday after showing up to camp late following his brother's wedding.
When the game devolved into a substitution-fest, as most friendlies do, Arena took a crack at operating with a 3-5-2. Omar Gonzalez, Matt Hedges and Tim Ream were the defenders (none started), and the U.S. does have the personnel to pull it off when called upon (DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson and Jorge Villafaña are capable wingbacks). As Arena showed in the 2002 World Cup, he's not afraid to make a bold lineup call and tactical shift, but given what we've seen and what we can deduce, don't expect a radical change from the start when the Americans return to qualifying action against Trinidad & Tobago.